Morton Owen Schapiro inducted as College’s 16th president

The formal induction of Morton Owen Schapiro as Williams College’s 16th president took place on Saturday afternoon in a ceremony held in Chapin Hall. Schapiro, who has been in office since July 1, was officially greeted by members of the Williams community and received his symbolic key and copy of the charter from Carl W. Vogt ’58, president of the College emeritus. The keynote speaker was William G. Bowen, president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and former president of Princeton University.

Following a procession, which included Williams faculty and representatives from 63 institutions of higher learning from the United States and England, the ceremonies were officially called to order by Carmen C. Massimiano, Jr., the sheriff of Berkshire County. Schapiro was greeted by representatives of the alumni, undergraduate students, staff, faculty and the Williamstown community.

After Richard E. Spalding, chaplain to the College, delivered the invocation, Robert L. Bahr ’67 welcomed Schapiro. Speaking on behalf of the Williams Society of Alumni, the oldest such society in North America, Bahr said that Williams “could not have a better leader and spokesman.”

The greetings continued in much the same vein, with Ami Parekh ’01 and Todd Rogers ’01, co-presidents of College Council, emphasizing how fortunate students are to have a president who is willing to interact with the student body. Margaret Johnson Ware ’70, a representative of the Williamstown community, applauded Schapiro’s enthusiasm for community interaction, expressing her hopes that “town-gown” relations would be improved during Schapiro’s presidency.

Thomas A. Kohut, professor of history and dean of the faculty, represented the faculty, welcoming Schapiro and his “lack of stuffiness and pretension,” his willingness to “make this wealthy and privileged institution not an ivory tower,” but a place where students from across the nation and around the world can come to learn. Raymond F. Henze III ’74, speaking on behalf of the Board of Trustees, praised Schapiro’s “passion for teaching and commitment to higher education.”

But it was Christine M. DeMasi Naughton, assistant to the chair of the department of economics, who seemed to sum up people’s feelings best. She expressed her sadness in having seen Schapiro and his family leave for the University of Southern California in 1991. The words she spoke at the ceremony reflected how many felt when the Schapiro family returned this summer: “Welcome home, Morty and Mimi.”

Following the greetings from the community, Bowen, father of Karen Bowen ’86, delivered the keynote address. His speech, entitled “The Two Faces of Wealth,” focused on opulence and its role in higher learning.

The first face of wealth, Bowen argued, was that of temptation, of self-absorption and of elitism. One reason many students go to college today is to make ample sums of money upon graduation. Although most people realize that there are few jobs today that pay well yet do not require a college degree, Bowen said, more and more students today focus only on money instead of on learning itself. Rather than focusing on the journey of education and majoring in traditional liberal arts subjects like English and philosophy, students see their academic careers merely as means to an end. They major in pre-professional subjects like business, often diverging from the path of intellectual stimulation and the nurturing of critical thinking that are the basis of a liberal arts education.

Bowen quoted a poem – “Ithaca,” by Constantin Kavafis, a Greek poet who died in 1933 – to illustrate his point: “Keep Ithaca always on your mind/Arriving there is what you are destined for/But do not hurry the journey at all/Better if it lasts for years/so you are old by the time you reach the island/ wealthy with all you have gained on the way/not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.”

Bowen argued that the second face of wealth, however, is the opportunity to do good for the world with the money that a Williams education can help students attain. But first, money must be spent on the students attending the college. Money should be used to foster a healthy academic environment, nurture learning and improve upon intellectual skills the students already have.

He referred to Mark Hopkins’ comparison to the mind of a student not to a receptacle into which information should be placed, but rather to a flame that must be fed. Using the “educational mission of the college as a touchstone,” Bowen said, colleges such as Williams should spread learning not only through the classroom, but through every college building, every day. And the only way this is possible is by spending money – on students, buildings and resources. After all, as Bowen stated, “excellence cannot be won, but it has to be paid for.”

Following Bowen’s speech, Henze stepped up to the podium again to recognize Vogt’s contribution to the College during his one-year interim term. Vogt “led us with uncommon wisdom and warmth,” Henze said, telling the former president that all of the College “will be forever in your debt.” The crowd responded enthusiastically, rising to its feet to give Vogt a standing ovation. Vogt then officially handed over the presidency to Schapiro in the symbolic form of a key and a copy of the school’s charter.

Schapiro then made a few comments, thanking the greeters and attendees and speaking of the significance of his new position. He spoke, as Bowen did, of the few college-age students in liberal arts colleges – fewer than 100,000 students of 15 million at college right now. Schapiro then talked about the importance of calling into question the meaning of the liberal arts college, reaffirming the need for the “golden standard” that Williams and its counterparts set. But he added that “with privilege comes responsibility:” the responsibility to make this education available to all social strata. “If we don’t recreate undergraduate education and redefine excellence, who will?,” asked Schapiro. “Let history one day know that our community had the courage to seize the moment.”

The ceremony concluded with the singing of “The Mountains” and a benediction by Rabbi Sigma Coran, associate chaplain. The induction was followed by a reception in Lansing-Chapman rink.